Saturday, 22 June 2013

The tragedy of art imitating death

My absolutely favourite British writer of them all, Iain Banks, missed seeing what he knew would be his final novel published by just 10 days. His publisher, when they heard of the grim prognosis for his cancer, rushed the process to try to beat his illness to the punch, but it wasn't to be.

As with all his work once I'd first read him, I bought the novel on the day it was released and read it quickly. I finished reading it on the bus home last night. For the double tragedy of it being the last words he ever wrote and the nature of his death, and the contiguity of his illness with the similarly terminal decline of the book's main character, I had to fight back tears which would have no doubt had my fellow passengers assuming I was the bus nutter when I finished it.

The book is, you see, as well as being as powerfully written as all his work, about a man raging against the dying of his own light as cancer has its way with him. This horrible resonance was, apparently, a coincidence, with the first draft finished when he found out about his own illness. It makes every word, of course, doubly meaningful. How much did he change once he'd found out? How much of the dying character's raging, bitter tirade against a vacuous society and the disappointments of most people's lives when measured against their own, younger, more idealistic selves was actually the voice of Banks?

That's what made the final chapters in particular, and finishing the book, so poignant. The quarry which forms the geographical and metaphorical backdrop for the book is an ever-advancing abyss, which stares back at you when you gaze into it. His dying character dismisses such feelings as the solipsistic ravings of a drug-addled drop out friend, and vents his fury at society, at his friends, at himself and the cancer that's taking him.

I hope that's not how Banks felt, that he was able to face his own end with something approaching acceptance, but who'd blame the man if he didn't? To have such a gift, to be able to express yourself so eloquently through work which resonated strongly with your readers, leaving them awed at the scale of such a giant imagination, and then be denied the right to express it fully - I can't begin to imagine how he felt.

So I was upset that there will never be another Banks release. Upset that I'd finished it, that there was no more to come from the man, that such a talent has been taken from us. I usually hate the rush of grief-junkie teeth gnashing which follows the death of somebody famous, the desperate desire to show how hurt you are that Diana's gone, but in this case I'm one of those who will feel the loss his absence represents quite keenly. I'm just one of millions who never knew the man but felt the power of his work, and what a great power it was. Cheers, Iain.